Could there be a pension in your past? U.S. workers are mobile and corporations are regularly merging, being bought out, changing their names or shutting down. That means it's not unusual for workers to become separated from their pensions. • "Nobody realizes when you leave employment when you're 40 years old that you should constantly update your employer with your current address," said Gail Webb, director of the Mid-America Pension Rights Project in Cincinnati. "They are required to send notices, but if you've moved, you don't get them."
To be eligible for a pension, you have to have worked at the company for enough years to be vested. Nowadays that typically takes five years, but in the mid 1980s it commonly took 10 years and before 1976, it often took 20 years or longer. That means if you worked for a company for only a few years in the '70s or '80s, you probably didn't earn a pension. But if you ever got a benefit statement from an employer showing you were vested, it's probably worth checking out. Widows and widowers also may be entitled to benefits earned by a former spouse.
That's not to say, of course, that a pension from long-ago work is likely to be a big one, especially if you didn't have a high-paying job.
Eva Weber of Spring Hill now gets a check for $175 a year because she and her husband, Gil, made the effort to track down her pension. She earned it working part time as a baker in an Atlanta supermarket back in the 1980s. Collecting was complicated by the fact that the grocery chain was bought out and the underfunded pension taken over by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.
The search for an old pension starts in your files. Do you have any documents related to your pension and earnings records, such as W-2 forms and pay stubs? If you have no records, you can ask Social Security — for a fee — for a record of employers and how much each one paid you for the years in question (Form SSA-7050).
If you can't find the company or its successor right away, you'll have to do some detective work. Possible sources of information include reference librarians who can search corporate name changes; former co-workers; a union that represented workers at the company or a library, historical society or chamber of commerce in the town where the company operated.
Once you find the company or its successor, call and ask how to contact the pension plan administrator. If that doesn't produce results, you may need to ask for help.
Pension counseling projects like Webb's serve 22 states, including Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey. Florida isn't on the list, but Floridians qualify for help if the pension in question is connected to one of the 22 states — maybe it was earned on a job in Ohio or the company had its headquarters in New York. Local legal aid programs may help.
Possible sources of government help are the Employee Benefits Administration of the Department of Labor and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. The PBGC is paying benefits for 3,800 failed pension plans including those for Florida companies such as Eastern Air Lines, Tampa Shipbuilding and Eli Witt Co.